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Judy Ni: Even Small Restaurants Need To Invest In Their Teams

Judy Ni is co-owner (along with husband Andy Tessier) of Baology restaurant in Philadelphia.

The positive thing that we’ve seen for our business is the value of investing in your guests as well as investing in your team. We’ve been incredibly fortunate. With the exception of families or pregnancies or relocations due to partners, we haven’t had to replace anyone yet.

We’ve been operating very cautiously. We have maintained our takeout and delivery service until now. We haven’t been open for dine-in all this time. The only time we’re going to switch is when we reopen in May. So it’s over two years that we’ve been takeout and delivery only. We’re always going to have it as an option, based on where we’re located in Center City Philadelphia. The offices have not returned. At best, we’re at 20 percent.

We honestly would not have made it, had it not been for our guests looking out for us. They keep supporting the team. That’s been a wonderful surprise.

When we first opened, we did a lot of things that were not typical or standard within the restaurant industry. One was opening a more fast-casual, counter-based concept, even though my background and Andy’s background were both in extreme fine dining. I always call it “extreme fine dining” because people were like, “Oh, there are places here that are fine dining.” I said, “No. When they give you rollups, they’re not fine dining. I need to break it to you. They’re just not.”

We intentionally wanted to do this because we thought that the way to execute our mission—getting better food into more people’s bellies—would be easier to achieve when it’s done on a regular basis. It’s also a very Taiwanese philosophy that maintenance of your body needs to be a daily thing, not just like a once in a lifetime thing.

Then we went with fixed payments for employees. We didn’t take tips at the restaurant. It definitely changed the way that we could hire people, because back then everyone was like, “Well, I can make so much more money with tips.” And I said, “I understand that. I’ve worked for tips, too. But there is something very attractive about the predictable nature of how much you’ll be paid on a regular basis.”

Judy Ni in the Baology kitchen with staff before the pandemic lockdown. Photo: Max Grudzinski.

I spent time at the front of the restaurant, regularly speaking to the guests, taking that 8 to 15 minutes depending on what they ordered, and investing that time to talk about like, “Hey, these are the ingredients that we’re working with. Let me share with you why we’re excited about this place that we’re buying beef from.” A lot of the educational or informative component that we had experience with in fine dining was something we wanted to pass on here too.

And I’ll say that while I’m not the most popular business there is, we built a really deep-rooted sense of loyalty and faith with our guests. We worked very hard to keep upholding that by continuing our commitment to farms. We’ve done the same thing during COVID. We haven’t gone with cheaper products or easier products simply because it’s been tougher. We’ve maintained our commitment to our farmers and our purveyors because it’s part of building this ecosystem that we very much believe in.

As an industry, we need to focus and treat ourselves and value our work. That includes reexamining the way that we’ve done things simply because it’s been done this way for so many years. Clearly, we knew—we all knew—that there were problems, and yet we were happy as an industry because it worked, and it was fine for now. And that is a dangerous way to operate a business in general, because now that we’ve seen that it’s a brittle and broken system, what are we going to do to address that?

When you work in restaurants, especially at a certain level of service, a lot of the job is to anticipate the guest’s needs. Are we doing that with our teams? Are we anticipating their needs? Are we going out of our way to make sure that they feel safe, that they feel comfortable, that they feel valued and appreciated? You can have guests come in, but if you don’t have a quality product over time, even their goodwill will only carry so far. We provide a service and a product, and it’s important that there be value in both. And that value comes from having a talented and skilled workforce. We’ve just not been appropriately valuing that workforce.

For example, a lot of companies say they offer healthcare, but the next question you should ask is, “What kind of healthcare are you providing?” I spent six months pulling my hair out, working with different brokers, trying to get what I thought would be a fair and appropriate healthcare plan for my team. I did a lot of due diligence. I asked friends that were in the industry and out of the industry. You’re hearing about deductibles that are in the $3,000 or more range. If that’s the case, then that is a deterrent from actually using that insurance. If my goal as a business owner is to have my team use the healthcare benefits—because I value them, and I want them to feel safe, and I want them to get the appropriate care when they need it—then I need to find a way to reduce those deterrents and allow them access to this benefit they have rightfully earned.

There’s an online thread of Philadelphia business owners, and someone asked about our insurance. But the responses from names that are very, very well-known within Philadelphia were like, “It’s so expensive to do it this way. We do it and we offer it, but it’s got a very high deductible, like $10,000. No one wants to use it.” And so they complain that their team members do not want benefits. And I have to snottily point out that it’s actually not that they don’t want benefits, it’s that they want actual useful benefits—not for you to check a box.

Most people who have a curiosity about food also have a curiosity about the stories of the people behind that food. If you care about food, then you care about how the person making it is being treated. You also care about how that animal or that plant was raised, and you care about how the person raising that animal or plant is cared for as well. Are there guests who just don’t give a crap and they put whatever in their body? Absolutely.

But I think what you’re seeing is a shift in the mindset of the guests as a whole. It’s an understanding that the wellness of what you put in your body impacts your own wellness. An investment in food is the most regular and, in some ways, very much the most impactful way that you can change the course of someone’s history or someone’s future.